An occasional poem

The Greek island of Kefalonia: We came, we saw, we sunbathed.

Odysseus, who came from Ithaca, sited next door,
Found Kefalonia rather a bore.
No dragons, no beasties, no Charybdis or Scyllas,
Just a load of young Brits drinking beer in their villas.
From the earliest moment when he was a boy
He wanted adventures, like leveling Troy.
But although of excitements he had quite a lot,
He seemed to ignore this particular spot.

The people are friendly, the climate sublime,
The countryside scented with sage and with thyme.
The olives are ancient, the beaches are sandy,
The food is so-so, but the markets are handy.
But except for Corelli and his mandolin,
There is little to stimulate adrenaline.
It’s an excellent place to just lie in the sun,
But nothing occurs there, when all’s said and done.

No, history’s passed by this particular isle – –
A backwater now, as it’s been for a while.
Top Romans arrived, found the island quite pleasant,
But generally gave it away as a present.
The Venetians came by and proved a mild menace,
But the wine wasn’t good, so they went back to Venice.
The odd conqueror conquered, but quickly departed;
The British came too, but were rather half-hearted.

No sign of a palace of mythical kings,
No civilizations or mystical springs.
No rivers to hell and no acropoli
To attract foreign visitors happening by.
The hire cars are hired, but most sit in the sun,
For where would they go if they went for a run
No wonder the Italians and British all choose
The beach and the poolside, banter and booze.
—— – – – – ———
Relevance to Epicureanism? Life is getting far too serious. We must make fun, especially of ourselves. In this case I am the advocate of “the poolside, banter and booze”.

Has the Republican Party gone crazy?

According to some political scientists, America has undergone what is known as asymmetric polarisation, which is when both of the two main political parties become more extreme, but one becomes far more extreme than the other. In America’s case, both the Republicans and the Democrats have abandoned the centre, but the Republicans are far further from the centre than the Democrats. This video from Vox explains the concept well.

Asymmetric polarisation has several components. The first and most obvious one is ideological: Republican values have moved much further to the right than Democrats’ values have to the left. Particularly since Trump came to prominence, Republicans espouse a philosophy that explicitly rejects the liberal international world order. Globalism, free trade and institutions like the UN are denounced for trying to undermine the American nation. This contrasts heavily with the prior bipartisan consensus in favour of American-led liberal institutions facilitating democracy and capitalism across the world. Republicans are increasingly sceptical of alliances with democratic countries like Canada or Germany, and place greater trust in autocratic regimes like Russia or the Gulf states. The Republican tilt towards authoritarian nationalism is one which has no equivalent on the Democratic ranks.

Republicans are also increasingly wary of the institutions that make America function. Everything from the universities, the intelligence agencies, the courts, and of course the Fake News Media, are seen as enemies of the popular will. Amongst the more intransigent Trump supporters include conspiratorial notions of a ‘Deep State’ which is trying to frustrate Trump at every opportunity. This goes beyond usual ideas of an establishment- it finds any restraint on Trump’s exercise of power as illegitimate. Again, there is no equivalent on the Democratic side.

Republicans have lost respect for the norms that need to be respected if the political process is to function smoothly. Under Mitch McConnell’s leadership as Senate Majority Leader, the filibuster has been used at a record rate. The refusal to even consider Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, was a blatant abuse of the Senate’s power. Whether its the extreme gerrymandering of Congressional and state districts, the purging of voters from electoral roles, or shutting down the government over the funding of Obamacare, the Republican Party no longer plays by the rules. Instead, it openly plays dirty. Once again, no equivalent can be found with the Democrats.

Asymmetric polarisation has had severe consequences in public policy. When Republicans used to consider immigration reform, they now force migrant children from their parents. When they used to accept the science of climate change, they now believe it is a hoax. Republicans used to believe in government intervention in healthcare, as seen in Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Bush’s Medicare expansion. They would work with Democrats to achieve tax cuts, welfare reform or free trade agreements. Such bipartisanship is unimaginable today, except for perhaps a few Republican governors in the Democratic Northeast.

None of this is to say the Democrats are just as centrist as ever. On some social issues like gay marriage or drugs, the Democrats have moved considerably to the left, though that is partly due to a nationwide shift in attitudes.  The Democrats’ progressive wing has become more prominent, though it is yet to take over the party the way the Tea Party replaced the Republican establishment in 2010. Immigration is perhaps the issue where polarisation has been the most symmetrical. While Republicans have become more hostile to immigration, Democrats have become far more welcoming. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders framed deportation as an unnecessary abuse of human rights, rather than a means to enforce democratically-agreed laws. More broadly, Democrats embrace multiculturalism at least as enthusiastically as Republicans reject it.

But the most potent argument in favour of the asymmetric polarisation thesis is one which contextualises the Republicans’ shift to the hard-right in the norms of the Western world. The Republican Party at present is no longer comparable to other centre-right parties in liberal democracies, such as Germany’s CDU, Spain’s Peoples’ Party or Ireland’s Fine Gael. Rather, it has more in common with explicitly illiberal populist parties like Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Fidesz, or even France’s Front National. Unlike the former and like the latter, it rejects free trade, is sceptical of supranational institutions and liberal globalisation. Its electoral appeal rests on pandering to xenophobic and isolationist sentiment. It disregards the norms of democracy, denounces universities and the media for their pluralistic values, seeks to entrench an inherent advantage in the political process. Most significantly, it places the whim of a strongman above ideological coherence or even a broad set of ideals. The Republican Party has gone crazy. America’s media ought to ditch the pretence of both sides being equally at fault, and report the truth.

Quoting Lucretius

In the words of Lucretius:

…we are all born from the same celestial seed;
all of us have the same father,
from which the earth, the mother who feeds us,
receives clear drops of rain,
producing from them bright wheat
and lush trees,
and the human race,
and the species of beasts,
offering up the foods with which all bodies
are nourished,
to lead a sweet life
and generate offspring…

(de rerum natura, bk.II, lines 991- 97)

and he might have added (less poetically):

There is only one Earth
That nurtures us and is bountiful.
To foul the seas, pollute the air,
Then deny all responsibility;
To spread soullessness about,
To concrete the land for short-term gain,
To tolerate starvation amid plenty;
To allow the purchase of
The political process
To import the desperate only for cheap labour
To disrupt public lives for private gain –
All this is foolishness ………….
Or maybe mass suicide.
Rich sirs, we have your names;
They will be carved
On memorials for all to see
In the halls of infamy

Nobody wants Northern Ireland

To The Times
The elephant in the room is that no one really wants Northern Ireland. Ireland can’t afford its engorged public sector costs, while British taxpayers have no option but to feed that expensive fly in the political ointment, and keep a stiff upper lip about it. Ironically, the EU has understood the Good Friday Agreement better than Theresa May and most of the Tory party, not to mention the hard Brexiteers.

The reality is that the EU also doesn’t want Northern Ireland (unless it comes with Ireland), an Ireland to which the EU remains wedded and loyal since 1973. Thus the backstop. Sorry Theresa, it won’t go away. (Alison Hackett, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin)

Years ago I worked as a consultant in Northern Ireland and had the opportunity of talking to several well-informed locals. I remember one person commenting, ”The Republic doesn’t want to inherit the violent people of both faiths, and the British don’t want them either. They have had to effectively buy peace here and are having to subsidise us at considerable taxpayer expense. This place used to be prosperous and contributed a lot to the economy. But shipbuilding has gone, and this economy hasn’t much going for it”. Now, it is only important because the right-wing, Protestant DUP is propping up Prime Minister May in Parliament. What can be done about it? Nothing much. The people of Northern Ireland will be living off the subsidies from Westminster, possibly indefinitely. Blame Cromwell, who started it all by importing Scots radical, Protestant “settlers” into Northern Ireland in the first place.

What has this to do with Epicureanism? The answer is that it illustrates the knots the human race can get into over religion and cultural identity. Epicureanism focuses on getting on together as individual human beings, without priests and confessions and priests telling you what to believe (and then abusing their authority).

Josip Broz Tito and Josef Stalin, 1948

The letter that terrified the most terrifying leader of modern times.

When a schism grew between the Communist allies, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Soviet leader Stalin expected the smaller country to bow before his power. Instead, the Yugoslavian President Marshal Tito defied Stalin. The latter was incensed, and despatched successive assassins to murder Tito. Finally, the Yugoslavian sent the following message to Stalin:

“Stop sending people to kill me! We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send a very fast-working one to Moscow and I certainly won’t have to send another.”

Tito’s message worked.

Moral: stand up to bullies. They are usually (secretly) weak men who lie and cheat their way to power, but are insecure, and desperate for approval and adoration. In the course of their supremacy they undermine the very system they espouse (The Soviet Union did not for very long exist after the death of Stalin). There is, regrettably, a lesson for us today.

Surprising poll results

More than half of Republicans in a new American Barometer poll say they support “Medicare for all,” also known as a single-payer health-care system. The survey, conducted by Hill TV and the Harris polling company*, found that 52 percent of Republicans polled said they supported the option, while 48 percent said they opposed it. Twenty-five percent said they “strongly” supported “Medicare for all,” while 27 percent said they “somewhat” supported it. 
Twenty-two percent said they “somewhat” opposed the idea, while 26 percent said they “strongly” opposed it. 

Democrats are currently trying to make health care, along with “Medicare for all,” a central campaign issue. Republican leaders, including President Trump, have slammed the idea, saying it would ultimately fail if it were put into action. “In practice, the Democratic Party’s so-called Medicare for All would really be Medicare for None,” Trump wrote in a USA Today op-ed. “Under the Democrats’ plan, today’s Medicare would be forced to die.”

However, other polling has shown that the increased attention on “Medicare for all” could be peeling away senior citizens’ support of Republicans in the midterms. A Morning Consult survey released last week found that 52 percent of voters whose top issues are Medicare and Social Security said they would vote for a Democrat in the midterms.

Highly embarrassed Republicans, who assumed that so-called “socialised medicine” was anathema to their voters, are only beginning to think about how to “message” this about- turn. It is likely to be the start of a long debate.

My comment: Actually the barrier to introducing a modern and workable health system is not necesarily the Republican party – it is the for-profit healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, who will spend lavishly among impressionable congressmen to kill any idea of going the way of Europe when it comes to healthcare. The corruption – because that’s what it is – is massive and, at this moment, insurmountable. Everything you see and touch and experience has to be monetised to the nth degree for the benefit of political donors and the super-rich. If Epicureanism stands for peace of mind and a pleasant life, then no Epicurean can in good conscience support the present system.
* The American Barometer was conducted on October 19-20 among 1,000 registered voters. The sampling margin of error is 3.1 percentage points. (Julia Manchester, The Hill, 23 Oct 2018)

School readiness.

All over Britain reception class teachers are faced with children who have not been taught the bssic social skills before they reach first school. Typically, about a third of all kids begin school without being able to speak in full sentences, use the toilet alone, hold, let alone read, a book. In fact, two in every five have not reached an adequate level of development to benefit from school at all. These kids start at a disadvantage and struggle later academically. Their health is worse and they stand a good chance of falling into crime.

It is a truism that every pound spent on a child in the earliest years will be repaid sevenfold. These children will not have another first-ever schoolday, and are being failed through no fault of their own. The ridiculous thing is that the teachers know precisely how to help, but are hindered by incompetent parents.

One vital thing is for parents to talk and to read to their children. They seem to think that it is solely the job of the school to bring up their children – no! Studies suggest that children from low income families have, by the age of three, heard an average of 30 million fewer words than those from higher income families. Talking and reading to children are both activities that are strongly associated with language development and are a vital part of bringing up a child. If there are no books in the house and the parents have their own problems reading to their children, then it is both the kids and the parents who need help. Parenting has a bigger influence on a child’s life chances in the early years. than education, wealth or class. Teachers are taught to teach, and shouldn’t have to show a child how to handle a pen, hang up a coat or observe the conventions of simple conversation.

Britain has a comprehensive pre-school programme, but all too often it’s a case of “warehousing” the kids with inexperienced babysitters. The answer seems to be to train these people better, pay them better, and ensure that all kids start on an even playing field. The trouble is the local authorities are starved of funds and the Tory government either doesn’t care (they’re alright, Jack) or won’t raise the taxes for such an important cause. (inspired by an article by Philp Collins, The Times, August 24,2018)

What Germany’s Green Party can teach America

A fortnight ago, I wrote on how the Democrats can win the midterms. Today, I wanted to focus on a successful example of an insurgent centre-left party- Germany’s Green Party- and what they can teach Democrats, and Americans generally.

On the 14th October, an election was held in the German state of Bavaria. The closest thing Germany has to Texas, Bavaria is a conservative, affluent state, home to German industrial giants such as BMW and Siemens. It is fiercely proud of its traditions, particularly its cultural Catholicism. And like Texas, Bavaria is a border state which has seen an influx of refugees in recent years.

But in the election, the centre-right CSU party suffered considerably. Its share of the vote fell from almost half to just 37%. The centre-left SPD, which has never been popular in Bavaria, saw its support more than halve to just 9.7%. The main beneficiaries of of the collapse of Bavaria’s main political parties were the Green Party, whose support more than doubled to 17.5%. The hard-right AfD won 10.2%, though this was lower than their support in Germany as a whole.

The reasons for the Green Party’s success were twofold. Firstly, the CSU had moved to the right in a bid to retain its conservative base. This scared centrist voters, who saw the Greens as a sensible, pro-EU and pro-immigration party. Secondly, the Greens benefited from an SPD which seems fresh out of ideas and leadership. The SPD is currently part of a ruling coalition in Germany’s federal government, yet it hardly makes a mark of its own. The Greens are passionate about the causes most Germans care about: improving the environment, reforming the EU, making German industry competitive in an era of scandals and tough foreign competition.

The success of Germany’s Greens ought to be encouraging to Democrats who wish to be more competitive in traditionally-Republican states. They show that if you make your arguments persuasively, passionately and convincingly, people will vote for you. They show the importance of having fresh and exciting ideas. They also demonstrate the need to be perceived as anti-establishment in a cynical and apathetic age, and the benefits of youthful, charismatic leadership. But perhaps most importantly, they show that there are benefits from working with your opponents. Bavaria’s Green Party benefited from the achievements of the Greens in the neighbouring state of Baden-Württemberg, who govern in coalition with the centre-right CDU.

Republicans should look at the achievements of the German Greens with fear. In an era of instability and uncertainly, you can never take your supporters for granted; people nowadays have higher expectations of their leaders. Being right-wing on identity issues and adopting a nationalistic disposition may play well with the base, but swing voters will feel alienated. An insistence on ideological purity will be particularly bad for your electoral prospects in the cities. Bavaria’s Greens did best in cities like Munich and Nuremberg. Similarly, America’s cities are increasingly Democratic- no doubt a reaction the Republicans’ aversion to internationalism, free trade and freedom of movement.

Overall, there are an awful lot of parallels between German and American politics. Americans who feel their country is changing for the worse politically should realise they aren’t alone. Just as America is becoming increasingly polarised, so too is Germany. The Bavarian elections saw an increase in parties that took an ideologically pure position on questions of national identity and Germany’s place in the world, at the expense of the big-tent parties that had a broader appeal. Open xenophobia and in many cases, anti-Islam sentiment was more vocally expressed, but so was staunch enthusiasm for migration and multiculturalism. America’s two-party system will prevent the Democrats and Republicans from experiencing the terminal decline suffered by many of Europe’s mainstream parties. But the ability of political movements across the developed world to win a broad base of support is in danger. Moderation in both Germany and America is becoming rarer. In the latter, it is almost extinct.



Distrust of multi-culturalism in the UK

Forty per cent of people think British culture is undermined by multiculturalism and that migrants do not properly integrate, according to a new survey, conducted by ICM and 60 citizens’ panels, carried out on behalf of the thinktank British Future and the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate over the past two years. The report reflects widespread frustration at the government’s handling of immigration; only 15% of respondents felt ministers have managed it competently and fairly.

More than a quarter of people believe MPs never tell the truth about immigration and half the population wanted to see a reduction in the numbers of low-skilled workers coming into Britain from the EU. “The lack of trust we found in the government to manage immigration is quite shocking,” said Jill Rutter, the director of strategy for British Future. “People want to have their voices heard on the choices we make, and to hold their leaders to account on their promises.”(BBC September 17, 2018)

One could write a similar piece about many Western countries, where people feel overwhelmed by the number of immigrants. The interests of the businesses, who want cheap labour, are opposed to those of the man in the street. Some of the latter are jobless, feel they cannot live on the incomes immigrants receive, and see a way of life changing without their being consulted. The businesses win every time. Of course, many immigrants are temporary, arriving in Britain to make a good wage for a while and then returning home, an ever-moving population. The most important point is that country needs them – nurses, doctors, plumbers, electricians etc for those jobs which are ever vacant and hard to fill. heartfelt thank-you to them!

But, liberal though I am on most things, on multiculturalism I just don’t get it. I like the improvement in British cuisine, and rely on skilled immigrants to keep a roof over our heads. But I admit to being skeptical about the people who go on about multi-culturalism. What really is it and what are the real, hard benefits? Do they outweigh the social upheavals and right-wing politics they have spawned? Is the recreation of a Peshawar street market in a poor part of Manchester that valuable an addition to the country, colourful though it might be? I would like to understand.

US fertility rates collapse

Women in the United States are having fewer children and at older ages than at any time in the last 30 years. This applies to all races and for both rural and urban America, including Hispanics. Between 2007 and 2017 the total fertility rate fell by 18% in large metropolitan areas, 16% in smaller metro areas, and 12% in rural areas, The biggest drop in the birthrate has been among teenagers (whose peak in the rate occured in 1991, and has fallen ever since) and people in their 20s. From 2007 to 2017 the birthrate of Hispanic women dropped between 26% – 30%, and is now beneath replacement rate.

If the birthrate age is too high, young people can’t find jobs; if it is too low, the economy contracts and a smaller broup of young people have to support a large retired population.

Germany and Japan have both experienced large drops in population, but have managed their workforces to maintain high productivity. The key is education, which is not valued by many people on the American Right and is starved of money and resources in areas all over the US.
Those visiting the zuS from countries shich take ecucation seriously, are appalled at the ignorance of people about the Constitution and the government system, about science, the environment, and even the writing skills. Something needs to be done urgently, but this takes money, and the country has a massive and growing deficit. The people who are cossetted and spoiled are the super-rich.

So why is the birthrate dropping? One can point to stagnant incomes, job insecurity, sky- high health costs, and lack of affordable housing. These are all factors, but I suspect that one motive for avoiding children is a gloomy, negative view of the future – global climate change, probable huge movements of displaced populations, political instability, warfare, and a breakdown of law and order. I personally wouldn’t have children were I young- for all the above reasons. Can you imagine current governments having the motivation and determination to do something positive about safeguarding the future? Nor can I. Young Americans are just being smart.

Why the religious Right will put up with anything Trump does or says

A Liberty University-produced film called “The Trump Prophecy,” claims that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 can be attributed to divine intervention, and that Trump is the King Cyrus of our times.

Cyrus the Great was the king of Persia in the second half of the sixth century BCE. He conquered the Babylon and established a huge empire. He allowed the Israelites, who had been exiled there some 50 years earlier, to return to their native land, to govern themselves and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. For this, the book of Isaiah declares that Cyrus was “messiah”, anointed by God to deliver the Israelites.

For the creators of “The Trump Prophecy,” the comparison with Cyrus has obvious appeal. It emphasizes the global power of the U.S. presidency. It implicitly condemns the previous administration: the exile from God that Trump is now reversing. And it makes Trump out to be the savior of God’s people, permitting them to live and worship as they please.

Although he may be beloved of the Christian right, Trump is no man of God. He is, like Cyrus, a pagan and a “tool of God”. This is often admitted by Trump’s “court evangelicals”. But to evangelicals Trump’s election was God’s plan.

But why would Cyrus do it in the first place? Here is where the equation with Trump becomes most interesting, and potentially revealing. The restoration of peoples to their lands, and the permission for them to self-govern (with Persian imperial oversight), was a broad policy under Cyrus. It was not just the Israelites he treated this way. It is easier to supervise a relatively self-governing group than it is to enforce Persian laws in a foreign and resistant land — but also, and perhaps predominantly, the policy was a propaganda coup. By appropriating local religious beliefs, he cemented his imperial domination and curried favor with the conquered peoples.

This is what happened in Israel as well. The declaration in Isaiah that Cyrus is God’s anointed ruler is not Israelite prophecy; it is Persian propaganda. The biblical writers bought what Cyrus was selling, and elevated him to the level of a David or Solomon. The parallel with Trump and his evangelical prophets is close. Trump too has effectively spoken the language of the religious right, promising them a return to their cherished customs and beliefs. (They’ll be able to say “Merry Christmas” again!)

Like Cyrus, Trump doesn’t care about the actual religious beliefs he is supporting. What he wants is free rein to do as he likes — with the support of those whose local authority he is propping up. He has offered influence, but not real power itself. And they have bought what he is selling. He is quite literally, to be a messiah figure.

It may all seem utterly ridiculous, of course, but there is an important historical lesson here. For though Cyrus restored Israel to self-governance, there would never be another Israelite king. The ceding of power to Cyrus marked the end of Israel’s native form of government. Proclaiming Trump to be a modern-day Cyrus is, implicitly and perhaps even unconsciously, to suggest that our own native form of government may have come to its untimely end. (Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible, Yale Divinity School, published on Religion News Service :

The support of evangelicals for a man who is a self-adoring huckster and whose every third word is a lie, a man who despises the poor, women and minorities – all this disqualifies them as a Christian sect. They are a political sect, manipulated constantly and expertly. Even evangelicals overseas do not regard them as christians.

Britain’s extreme right wing shows it has no idea and no grown-up ideas.

A short while ago the hard-line Brexiteers of the European Research Group were expected to finally reveal their detailed plan. The group of some 80 Tory MPs, led by the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg, was going to publish “a Brexit plan to rival Theresa May’s”.

Some in the Prime Minister’s camp feared that it would be “the final nail in the coffin” for her Chequers proposal. But in the event, the ERG’s plan B never materialised. The group’s fractious MPs were unable to agree on a united vision. Insiders revealed that the blueprint had been shelved over concerns about its “accuracy and eccentricity”: it included some off-the-wall ideas, such as a plan to build a Star Wars-style missile shield to protect Britain from nuclear attack, and an expeditionary force to defend the Falklands. “The truth is that we reconsidered,” said Rees-Mogg.

So instead, the ERG pushed ahead with a series of smaller announcements. First, they confidently asserted that a no-deal Brexit would leave Britain better off. According to a report by the pro-Brexit group Economists for Free Trade, far from unleashing doom, a no-deal would result “in a £1.1 trillion boost to the economy over 15 years” (how, exactly? Ed. They have no idea). Rees-Mogg endorsed the report heartily, which was surprising. “To have any idea where the economy will be in 15 years is erroneous,” he harrumphed when the Treasury forecast in January that a no deal would cut growth by 8% in 15 years. The ERG later released its own plans for solving the sticky Irish border question. The Irish government called the plan “dreamland stuff”.

Rees-Mogg and friends have had ample time to research their proposals. Yet with only a few months to spare, they have come up with a prospectus that is embarrassing. Their plans are studded with basic mistakes: they don’t seem to grasp, for instance, that the EU simply cannot give the UK access to the single market on the basis of a vague promise that our product standards will be equivalent.

It’s clear now that the ERG does “not deserve to be taken seriously”. Hopefully the whiplash from the recent car crash will jolt most of them to their senses “after a summer spent huffing and puffing and threatening to blow Chequers down”. The rebels have had their chance and they’ve fluffed it. Now they can only save face by abandoning their fantasies and accepting that a Chequers-style deal is inevitable. (from The Guardian, The Spectator, The Times & Daily Telegraph).

How do these closns get elected? They help blow up the United Kingdom in a xenophobic fit, but haven’t the intellect to study the problem and come up with grown-up ideas. It makes a farce of democracy. Where did all the grown-ups go? (Hint: not to the United States).

Chipping away at our health

The Trump administration has quietly reshaped enforcement of air pollution standards in recent months through a series of regulatory memos. The memos are fulfilling the top wishes of industry, which has long called for changes to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the nation’s factories, plants and other facilities. The EPA is now allowing certain facilities to be subject to less-stringent regulations and is letting companies use friendlier math in calculating their expected emissions. Environmentalists and public health advocates say the memos could greatly increase levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides. They accuse the EPA of avoiding the transparency and public input requirements that regulatory changes usually go through.

I have picked just this one instance of harming-the-public-while-delighting-business to illustrate what is happening, mostly behind closed doors and without input from health or public interest groups. Air pollutants like mercury benzene and nitrogen oxides were unknown in the days of Epicurus (lucky Epicurus!), but if they had been I think he sould have been an advocate for regulation, and would have excoriated those who were knowingly and deliberately endangering both health and lives. And for what? Grubby donations to a political cause?

The gunrunner President

American weapons makers have dominated the global arms trade for decades. In any given year, they account for between one-third and more than a half by value of all international weapons sales.

Until recently, the Trump administration had focused on the promotion of big-ticket items like fighter planes, tanks, and missile defense systems around the world. Now Trump has specifically instructed American diplomats to put special effort into promoting arms sales. This has effectively turned them into agents for the country’s largest weapons makers.

Meanwhile, huuman rights and even national security concerns have taken a back seat to creating domestic jobs via such arms sales. Evidence of this can be found in, for example, the elimination of the Obama administration arms sales suspensions to Nigeria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi Arabia’s commission of acts that one member of Congress has said “look like war crimes” in its Yemeni intervention, and his defence of the Saudi regime in the matter of the assassination of Jamal Khasogghi, Trump continues to protect his much-vaunted arms sales. No one has accused him of having any shred of moral fiber.

The fact is that fuelling death and destruction actually generates significantly fewer jobs per dollar than almost any other kind of investment. In addition, many of those jobs will actually be located overseas, thanks to production-sharing deals with weapons-purchasing countries like Italy, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other U.S. allies. In particular, Saudi Arabia is seeking to ensure that, by 2030, half the value of the kingdom’s arms purchases will be produced in Saudi Arabia. The McClatchy news service summed up the situation in this headline: “Trump’s Historic Arms Deal Is a Likely Jobs Creator — In Saudi Arabia”.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has brokered agreements for sales of major systems worth $46 billion in the first six months of 2018, more than the $41 billion in deals made during all of 2017. And that, it seems, is just the beginning. (Tomgram, Aug 14 2018 edited review of “The NRA and the Gun Industry in the Global Stratosphere By William D. Hartung”)

So the priority of the American diplomat overseas is to sell arms! As if there were not sufficient violence and ethnic division in the world already, made worse by modern methods of slaughter. This is supported by the christian supporters of a president who is scrapping the restraints put upon other disagreeable, repressive regimes, put in plce by his predecessors. People who subscribe to the peaceable ideas of Epicurus should be appalled. The problem is that every day there is yet another shock to our sense of decency, as ataraxia gets daily more difficult to achieve.

Take those impractical courses, kids!

The President of John Hopkins University, Ronald J. Daniels, recently overheard a conversation among students. One opined that he would have liked to have enrolled in an introductory course in philosophy, but that the demands of his major meant that “enlightenment would have to wait”, you “gotta get a job”, and that therefore he would have to sign up for a “practical” course. Such is the pressure of the sceptics of the humanities (“what use is 19th Century French literature?”) that courses in the humanities in the US are dwindling and are known in the trade as “fragile disciplines”.

I was recently talking with a very senior person from the US Treasury. In the course of the conversation he told me that the biggest problem in the Treasury was the lack of people who could write English, communicate with the Press, not to mention internally, and make the jargon of the department comprehensible. He said that good writers with a command of grammar and vocabulary were among the highest earners in this large department.

I read Modern History at University. For “history” you can resd “human motivations, national interest and mass psychology”. I ended up running a company and found history a great foundation for managing employees and customers, the two most important aspects of management. Of course, not everyone will end up managing people, but learning the technical part of a job comes after you have honed your imagination, ethical decision-making, writing skills, discernment, critical thinking, self-reflection, empathy, and tolerance. Not to mention sense of humour, without which all business can be grim.

Actually, recent studies show that those with humanities degrees are thriving in the workplace. They experience low rates of unemployment and high levels of job satisfaction. Throughout an average career the ratio between average median incomes for humanties degree holders and those with business, engineering, health and medical science degrees has been shown to narrow. As if only income matters in a lifetime.

Yet another serious “derivatives” threat

Prospect Magazine, October 2018 edition, runs an article by Jay Elwes entitled “The Brexit Crunch”, and it is very important indeed. A precis of the article follows. Long-ish, but bear with me:

In 2008 the total value of all CDOs (Collateralised Debt Obligations) and Credit Default Swaps, both types of derivatives, was $458 trillion. One might be forgiven for imagining lessons have been learned, pace Warren Buffet, who severely criticized the derivatives business last time. But no. The current value of all derivatives at the moment is now an astonishing $542.4 trillion, and, furthermore, the modern type of derivative is designed not so much to allocate risk but to conceal it.

The last disaster was caused by over-stretched sub-prime house borrowers. This time it is Brexit.

It seems the British government is going to pass a law allowing EU companies to work on derivative trades post- Brexit, but the EU has made no corresponding offer. If no agreement is forthcoming British finance companies will be unable to operate in the EU. The value of the EU derivatives operated by British companies in the EU is about £27 trillion at any one time. If there is no agreement between the UK and the EU, the legal basis of the derivatives will disappear the day Brexit is effective, and the British companies would have to apply for permission to trade with every country in which they operate. It is possible that the European Court of Human Rights would ensure that freedom to enter contracts, and property rights over derivatives, would be maintained. But it would take time to litigate, and the British companies need immediate clarity.

Worse than this threat of disruption is the fact that after 2008 regulators pushed derivates into clearing houses, the biggest of which is LCH (formerly London Clearing House). LCH clears billions of EU trades every day. When Brexit happens LCH and other clearing houses will be regarded by the EU as “third country entities”, and would lose their right to trade in the EU. Banks would have to move their businesses into continental clearing houses, and find someone prepared to buy all the trades they individually have on their books, a tall order. This in turn would create a stampede to sell assets built up over many years, amounting to an estimated £33 trillion.

The European Banking Authority has said in a statement that “firms cannot take for granted that they can continue to operate as at present, nor can they rely on as yet unrealised political agreements”. This matter of derivatives could cause a giant international meltdown and is arguably the least discussed, but most important issue, about Brexit, not, of course, even thought about (or understood?) by Brexiteers.

Were I not of Epicurean persuasion I would add: Heaven help us!

How to reform the US Senate

For those of you who read the New York Times, you would have read that the senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh represent only 44% of the US population. These senators tend to come from states which are small, rural and disproportionately white. In an era where race and population density play an ever-greater role in determining political preferences, the system, however unintentionally, seems heavily bias in favour of the Republicans. Combined with a hyper-partisan climate, and the results are toxic.

Defenders of the Senate as it is point to the intentions of the Founders. They wanted senators to be wise councillors, uninhibited by tribal bickering and hot-headedness. More importantly, the Constitution was written in the context of a society where state identity was very strong. The most common criticism of the Constitution was that it granted the federal government too much power; anti-federalism was still very strong in country that had been governed under the Articles of Confederation. By ensuring that states were represented as states, power-hungry demagogues who appealed to the whims of the masses would have their ambitions curtailed.

But it goes without saying that America in the early 21st century is a very different place to America in the late 18th century. States, particularly the small Midwestern ones, have a weaker identity, and one which is more cultural than political. The slave-non slave division no longer exists. America’s primary economic division used to be between the industrialised Northeast and the agricultural South. It is now between globalised cities and de-industrialised small towns. Since the New Deal, America has become accustomed to the federal government playing an active role in society; a chamber cannot defend its existence simply as a curb on ‘big government.’ Put simply, the Founders could never have foreseen America’s current political, socioeconomic and demographic nature.

On the other hand, what constitutional conservatives get right is that it would be a mistake for the Senate to become a mere replica of the House of Representatives. Already, the Senate exhibits some of the worst features traditionally associated with the House: ultra-partisanship, a lack of technical expertise and experience, frequent stalemates. The influence of corporate money is even worse in the Senate due to the sheer expense of running an election across a whole state. The existence of the filibuster makes passing all but the budget reconciliation bills an arduous process. If America is to have a second chamber, it ought to be one which contributes wisdom, moderation and a long-term vision. Democrats have proposed a range of reforms to make the Senate more representative: giving bigger states more senators, giving Puerto Rico and DC statehood, campaign finance reforms. But these would only make the Senate a copy of the House- hardly a desirable outcome given the general unpopularity of Congress.

Rather, reforms to the Senate ought to focus on reducing its power. A chamber that is increasingly unrepresentative should not be able to indefinitely veto legislation, particularly pertaining to finance matters like the budget or the debt ceiling. The Senate should transition into being more of a revising chamber, akin to Britain’s House of Lords or Germany’s Bundesrat. Most bills should originate in the House, with the Senate mostly tasked with improving legislation, not changing it entirely. This would have the happy effect of reducing the amount of money poured into Senate campaigns, and thus the amount of time senators have to waste fundraising.

The Senate should also be non-partisan. This already happens in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. While true non-partisanship will be extremely difficult to achieve, the absence of party whips would allow Senators to vote their conscience, fearing only the views of their constituents. For example, Trump-sceptic conservatives could oppose some of his policies without being labelled a traitor to the Republican Party. This would have the added benefit of replacing party primaries with a single primary to determine who stands in the general election.

America is fortunate to have the Senate. The Founders were right to fear the power-hungry men that were attracted to the House. They wanted a civilised, intelligent platform where the conflicting interests of the states could be resolved amicably. Progressives who favour the abolition of the Senate point to countries like Sweden or New Zealand, which seem to get on perfectly well without one. But those countries have a multi-party political culture, where coalitions and compromises with those from other parties are normal. America, which is dominated by two bitterly opposed parties, needs a non-partisan, experienced and wise second chamber. And while the political salience of state identity has been reduced, it remains a prominent fact of life which requires representation.

Quotations from Albert Einstein

“The most aggravating thing about the younger generation is that I no longer belong to it.”

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned at school.

“You teach me baseball and I’ll teach you relativity…..No, perhaps we shouldn’t…..You will learn relativity faster than I learn baseball.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Sexual abuse in the Catholic church

A new manual designed to help prevent clerical sexual abuse in Chile has triggered further outrage by listing a host of instructions that critics say should be self-evident. Among other things, the manual – which was published on the website of the Archbishop of Santiago, but which has since been withdrawn – advised priests not to touch children’s genitals and to refrain from “expressions of affection” such as patting buttocks and hugging from behind. It also warned priests not to kiss children on the mouth. The document, signed by Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, was posted online one day before Pope Francis defrocked Fernando Karadima – one of the priests at the centre of Chile’s clerical abuse scandal.

I would prefer a Catholic to explain how the church got itself into this appalling mess. For a non-believer to do so seems inappropriate.

Me Too

If occasonally I depart from philosphic mode, I hope I will be forgiven for my human failing. It usually isn‘t worth getting roiled up.

On this issue, however, I don’t apologise at all. What some entitled, predatory and totally amoral men are doing now in the United States is trying to discredit the MeToo movement and to make out that they, the men, that is, are being victimised and unfairly picked on by harridans who hate men and who make up sordid events that never happened. Already we have seen a group of men, led by no less than the President of the United States (!) trash the reputation and the quiet, honest and totally believable testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who charged Judge Kavanaugh with attempted rape.

Now other men are piling on, with poor-me stories of wild and unsubstantiated accusations that “women” are false witnesses, only out to bring down decent, upstanding men, who now dare not even smile at a woman without being accused of date rape.

Maybe I, in turn, am being unfair, but to me (as a man) the only reason I can see for this backlash against women is a compunction to lash out as a “saint” (with a guilty conscience?) in order to head off a real case of sexual harrassment, and to brand a woman before she gets a chance to brand you. The sight of the President trashing the victims of harassment and rape while his ardent supporters (including women!) cheer and laugh, filled me with disgust. You can be poorly educated, out of a job, fed up with the way the country is run, but still exhibit sympathy, even outrage on behalf of women exploited sexually by powerful bosses.

Can a man be a member of the MeToo movement? Count me in!